Reading Autobiography of a Face was much different than reading Karen, and not just because Lucy Grealy (its writer) dealt with Ewing’s sarcoma (cancer of the jaw) instead of cerebral palsy. As I read I focused on the opposite trajectory and mood of the narratives.
Karen takes place in a world where persistence makes miracles, but Autobiography of a Face comes from a place of uncertainty, and is full of feelings of weakness and failure. There are no miracles in Lucy’s world. She closes the book by saying that self-acceptance – indeed, any fortifying revelation – is not something humans can hold onto once they find it. Rather, she says, “We have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.”
This difference in worldviews doesn’t come from prognosis, really. Lucy survived her cancer, and was writing at a time when she was dealing, not with the prospect of death, but the debilitating depression of looking odd. I can imagine these same feelings as possible in Karen, given her cerebral palsy and knowing how alienated I often feel even with a much less visible disability.
But I do have to imagine it, with Karen. Here, Lucy tells her own story. It is not about achieving milestones (with no mention of any moving “you’re-cancer-free” conversation). It is not about beating odds (though the 5% survival rate of Ewing’s sarcoma is mentioned in passing). It is not about support of doctors and family building her up.
It’s about how awful it feels to fail at simple normalcy, how frustrating to never go unnoticed, how irritating to know you should be used to it by now – the staring, the name-calling – and yet you aren’t.
Lucy writes that she thought she was weak.
We like to try to adopt the perspective of others, but we can’t achieve it by watching. Looking back on Karen – though the book bears her name – it’s about what it’s like to be a mother of cerebral palsied child. It’s not about being that child.
In Autobiography of a Face, when child-Lucy is first receiving chemotherapy, she cries before the procedure begins, which is unlike her as she prizes being tough. Her mother later expresses embarrassment that Lucy cried when there had not yet been any pain.
Subsequently, her mother tells her not to cry at every chemo appointment. Each time, Lucy cries and feels like a failure for not being able to bear it.
This reminded me of many times when my mother has told me I was being “too sensitive.” When I came home from school to tell her that someone had called me retard or shoved me in a locker she would say that I needed to learn to let things roll off my back. I remember feeling lost. All I’d wanted was to be told that it wasn’t fair of them to hurt me so deeply, but I was hearing that I was wrong because I let them.
But once, Lucy’s mother brings her face close to Lucy’s during the chemo procedure, and Lucy realizes that her mother’s eyes are full of tears. And, in my twenties, when I told my own mother how her words had felt prohibitive of my feelings, she said, “When I give you advice, I’m really talking to myself.”
The coping of our respective mothers looks the same to me, like a forced fortitude. And it reminds me again of the stronger attitude in Karen. People close to suffering people suffer, too. It’s just not the same suffering, and they deal with it differently, which is why we need stories like Lucy’s, told by Lucy herself, in the world of memoir.
Lucy taught me some craft tricks as she was telling her story. She writes about leaving plastic animals outside, pretending they are real and living in habitats she has made for them. This effectively demonstrates her escapism from her cancer treatment. It also sets us up for the moment that making herself sick to get out of chemotherapy occurs to her, on a trip into the rain to check on her animals. When choosing what to put in a memoir, details that can embellish while also laying groundwork are useful.
In trying to make herself sick, Lucy attempts cutting herself with a rusty can, stopping short of breaking her skin. She writes, “Something always held me back, and for the longest time I thought it was cowardice.” This is a knowing moment shared with the reader – implying how misguided child-Lucy was – without qualifying the behavior throughout.
She gives her perspective, and then she gets out of the way.